“One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Those words have never rung so true as they do in conjunction with Alexandre Aja’s headfirst dive into the shallow waters of tongue-in-cheek exploitation horror. Aja has spent his last three films exploring the more severe sector of the genre with 2003’s High Tension, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes, and 2008’s Mirrors, earning a spot in the extreme horror’s so-called “splat-pack” (which also includes Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Neil Marshall). Claiming that Piranha 3-D marks a change for the French director would imply that he delivers something far more nuanced than what we get. In shifting his tone from brutal splatter to horror-comedy, Aja tosses out empty totems in the form of topless women and mutilated cadavers with nary an ounce of scrutiny, in order to make the disciples hoot and jeer. As a matter of fact, you can almost hear the hoots and jeers of the cast and crew, but from the perspective of audiences in stadium seating, the inside joke loses its potency. Piranha 3-D has the subtlety of a 16-year-old with ADD, but it’s born of adult impulses, nurtured by a 21st-century reptilian brain, displayed onscreen with vacuous irony. Aja’s meat may not be as toxic as poison, but the careless way his apathy is wielded as entertainment comes close enough.
The newest entry in the Piranha franchise ditches the sinister piranha-as-military-weapon used in the first two installments, and instead goes with an earthquake that opens an underground reservoir below a lake, where prehistoric evil lurks. As seismologists dive to the lake’s floor to examine the rift, Spring Break is in full throb on the shores of Lake Victoria. Looking every bit the part of MTV’s Spring Break, the women solicit objectification and the men wear Depends in anticipation of having so much fun they’ll crap themselves. Sheriff Forester (Elisabeth Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) try to keep order, but when two of the divers surface with no skin on their bones and a nasty looking fish flops into the boat, they realize they have an emergency that even Chief Brody couldn’t have imagined. Meanwhile, Sheriff Forester’s oldest son has skipped out on babysitting his little brother and sister in order to scout for a porn shoot led by wild and crazy guy Derrick (Jerry O’Connell). Ready for new flesh after two million years of eating their own, the piranhas join the party and boil up a seismic bloodbath.
The basic plot structure goes something like this: boobs, carnage, recon, sequel-inducing cliffhanger. And it’s all carried out with such uninspired gratuity, I couldn’t muster any hatred or sympathy for the characters that were about to be eaten alive. In most cases, banal superfluity is confused with that daring audacity that Piranha 3-D purports to offer. The clever potshots that come one after another fail to carry the film and, once you strip that away, there’s little left. In what is no doubt meant to be a wink-wink-nod-nod to kitsch, Aja combines the aesthetics of the waterfall beer sign in your neighborhood bar and the limited edition Jeff Wilkie print that your aunt bought in Hawaii and attaches them to an underwater soft-core mermaid flaunt ridiculously scored with Delibes’s “Lakmé Flower Duet.” This uninspiring 3-D action is only surpassed by a little projectile vomit and a severed penis spit in our faces by one of those poorly rendered CGI piranhas. Richard Dreyfuss dies before the credits roll, and Eli Roth’s head gets pulverized before he even has a chance to be annoying. The sole beacon of light is Christopher Lloyd’s brief appearance, in which he informs everyone, bug-eyed, that, “This particular piranha vanished two million years ago!” — a line delivered as only Christopher Lloyd can deliver it. But you can see that in the trailer. The joyless thrills that Piranha 3-D offers are best left rotting at the bottom of the lake. Monsieur Aja, turn your funny bone off. It doesn’t work.